I recently started using an app to learn German. I liked it more than I wanted to. As a language teacher, I would like to side with my colleague who says, “There’s no substitute for a teacher in the classroom.” But I don’t feel like taking on a full bore German class, studying for tests and being given a grade on content I didn’t chose. I like being able to pick up my phone and do a ten-minute lesson. The material is contextualized, and I get immediate feedback on my written and spoken output. (I won’t tell you the name of the app, but here’s a hint. I learned to say, “My owl never plays chess on the weekends.”)
My goal as a language teacher now is to take stock of tech tools like this app and to see how I can adjust. I know tech tools are improving by the day; however, I don’t think my career is over quite yet. The pandemic taught me something else as well. Humans crave personal contact with other humans and some of our happiest learning experiences are when we process information in a social context.
Consequently, the transition back to the classroom provides an opportunity to think about what that space should look like post pandemic. With other options available, there should be a reason for students to get in their car or board a bus and travel to a campus. If they can do grammar drills and vocabulary flashcards with an app, then I need to complement that with more integrated experiences that bring the learning together for authentic communication.
It starts with content. Content must be a major driver of a leveled up, communicative language program. With a little scaffolding and vocabulary preparation, different varieties of provocative texts can spark social interaction. In the classroom, learners can get topic related lexical sets, work on fluency skills, and collectively tease out the features of different genres and discourse communities, not to mention the more prosodic features of speaking.
Content already appears in many coursebooks, but, honestly, I’m not convinced it has kept up with the world we live in. The pandemic, political upheaval, and the social justice movements of recent years are swirling around our students. We can provide language and space for them to process their experiences and observations regarding these events. Themes should be relevant to local conditions, and teachers can decide what is appropriate and what they might be willing to take on, but if certain features of reality are invisible in the classroom, how can students talk about them outside?
This leads to the question, where is this content going to come from? As a writer, I love to try new things, and recently, our program has launched a podcast. With the help of a campus librarian, we are producing “Houston in Slow English.” It’s goal is to provide listening material for immigrants and international students that complements the themes in the coursebooks but with a local angle. There are Houston restaurants, local immigrant profiles, and a history of the region. A medical center one is coming next week, and then we’ll do weather, which includes local hurricane stories.
Another goal for the podcast is to provide leveled access to comprehensible input. This entails more than simply adjusting the speed of a talk. At the lower levels, it is also about using prosodic features that support students in hearing focus words in phrases. In fact, it is exactly what I would want to complement the app with which I am learning German.
In the classroom, the podcast episodes spark multi-modal projects in which students draw from their own experiences and communities to recycle the vocabulary and explore unit themes more personally. For example, an immigrant profile leads to a memoir assignment, a story on the prenatal unit at Houston’s med center is part of a project to create a public service announcement. A historical podcast on the name of a local waterway jumpstarts a panel presentation in which students research other famous street, school, or place names.
This podcast endeavor is not about replacing coursebooks. It’s more a question of introducing content that enlivens our classroom community. Students can drill sounds and grammar on their own. In class, if the content is relevant and the scaffolding in place, they can elaborate, question, agree, challenge, share, explore and integrate the vocabulary, grammar and skills they’ve been working on into a grand communicative experience. Content is simply a way to get the ball rolling.
In fact, just yesterday, a student excitedly shared a video with me and then with other students. She and a partner had performed a drama sketch in their pronunciation class. The teacher had supplemented Clear Speech by Judith Gilbert with material from The Drama Book. This gave students opportunities to collaborate and to integrate the specific and very useful pronunciation features of Clear Speech into something that also felt real and meaningful because it was integrated.
Perhaps the authority of desks facing the “front” of the classroom is morphing into something different post-pandemic. Maybe the classroom can be like the black box in theater, which is constantly being reconfigured to build any number of worlds, a performance space, a conference room, the interior of the space shuttle, or something else entirely.
Here is a link to the podcast and the first episode if anyone is looking for examples of different ways to create content for the English language classroom. Each episode is less than five minutes, and it’s graded for the high elementary to low intermediate learner.